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Last updated: 08 October 2017.

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Are Kim and Donald about to blow up half the planet?

North Korea - A View From the Southern Hemisphere

 Melbourne, Australia, Friday, September 15

Things look different from down here. Most of the people around me don't think that of course. Things don't look different to them, they just look the way they look, but I'm not from round here, I notice. So in Australia life goes on. The right wing government is trying to bully a privatised energy company into keeping a fifty year old coal-fired power station open (I know, Alice, looking glass), I still haven't got my ballot paper for the $122 million non-binding postal plebiscite on same sex marriage (no, we haven't got it yet, another story), but on the bright side the footy finals are in full swing (that's Aussie Rules of course). Oh and Kim Jong Un just lobbed another missile over Japan, threatened to sink it (Japan) and reduce the US to ash and darkness (I think it was).

Obviously this has been going on for a while, and there is a certain low level anxiety in the air, rising whenever something like this happens. I'm sure you've felt it, even in Scotland. And it has certainly taken a turn for the worse this year, since Trump came to office. Ever since then people have been asking me about this region, China, North Korea, etc. It didn't used to feature much in the news over there, I noticed that when I was in Scotland in 2014. But have a look at that map. This is our neck of the woods. China and Japan are our two largest trading partners. Which, by the way, Boris and all his talk of a great trade deal with Australia - I'm not sure there's that much we could be trading. Our biggest export is iron ore. China's been buying shiploads of that for the last few decades, while Britain was getting rid of its steel industry. We've got coal, heaps of it that we really shouldn't dig up, but Britain doesn't really use it any more anyway. Other than that we tend to do the same things, pretty much. Food and drink, oil and gas. Oh, and we've got about a million wild camels, another long story, if anybody's interested.

Anyway, we've been living with North Korea for a long time. And for most of that time, after the war of course, things settled into a comfortable pattern. They have always indulged in the odd bit of bellicose rhetoric, and everyone has ignored them and got on with their lives. There was a very strange episode with them kidnapping people from Japan and denying it for decades before finally letting some of them go, but until relatively recently they weren't in a position to threaten anyone except South Korea, and South Korea's nuclear alliance with the US seemed to preclude any re-outbreak of hostilities. Now, it has been described as an uber-Stalinist regime, but I'm not sure that's the correct description. It certainly has Stalinist features. Some of the methods of societal control do resemble Stalinism on steroids. But how many generations into a dynasty do you have to be before you admit it's a monarchy? And no ordinary monarchy either. The Kim family are worshipped like god-kings. And yes, economically it's state controlled, but the people have been largely reduced to penury to serve the needs of the regime. The Egyptian Pharaohs probably ran a fairer society.

But does all this mean North Korea is an 'irrational actor?' This is the fear, isn't it? This is the term TV commentators use. In Trump and Kim Jong Un we have two 'irrational actors' and what happens next is anyone's guess, right? Well, yes and no. The addition of Trump to the mix certainly seems to have had a destabilising effect. Let's just have a look at him first, before we talk about Kim. He is a man dangerously out of his depth. He is basically your mad old uncle who thinks he knows how to run the world, but by virtue (probably not the right word) of having personality problems beyond the dreams of analysts he has somehow managed to get himself elected US President. He seems to embody the Douglas Adams quote, "Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job." He rants, he raves, he blusters. He constantly changes his positions. He launches missiles over chocolate cake at Mar a Lago. He is clearly a wild card. But it's not just him.

As a Washington outsider, he doesn't have the range of contacts in Washington a new President would normally have. As a result many positions, particularly in the State Department, remain unfilled, and a number of key positions that had to be filled ended up occupied by people he's been given by the Republican establishment.

It's hard to know who to be more worried about, Trump or those RNC picks, because they are a bunch of Reaganite neocon hawks. Cold warriors. And they think North Korea is a Stalinist regime, and they think that what 'worked' in the cold war will work again. That is also a dangerous perspective to take. With Trump you never know what he's going to say next, nor how much of what he says he will actually act on, and how much is just covfefe, forgotten in the morning. He is careless with his words, and obviously in the present charged climate, with a leader as little understood as Kim Jong Un, that could be dangerous. But the ranking neocon in the administration, the Defence Secretary James Mattis, usually picks his words very carefully. So perhaps we should be worried when he says, about 19 seconds in to this video:

"Any threat to the United States or its territories including Guam, or our allies, will be met with a massive military response..." (my emphasis). He seems to be boxing himself into something of a corner there. Not any attack, but any threat, and not may, or might, but will be met with a military response. Of course, that was about two weeks ago, and there have been quite a few threats since then.

Which brings us back to the boy king. Is he mad? Is he irrational? We tend to assume he is, because he looks pretty odd, as did his father Kim Jong Il. But maybe that's just too easy an assumption. Let's forget the Kim dynasty, and look at this from the North Korean regime's point of view, as if they are rational actors. The next obvious reason we tend to think they're mad is that to Western eyes their actions look potentially suicidal. We have become unused to seeing anyone challenge American military might as flagrantly as this. Russia and China have big enough nuclear arsenals to deter them, but they aren't going around making threats. But how does this look to the North Koreans? They haven't fought a war for a long time, but the last time they did they took on the Americans. And they got a draw. So they aren't as automatically cowed as many countries would be. Even so, for a very long time they seemed to be prepared to settle, in practice if not in principle, for that result. What happened? Well, with thanks to the enthusiastically helpful Chas Licciardello of the ABC TV's Planet America, and via the Washington Post, have a look at this graph of North Korean Missile launches:


You see, nothing much happened until the 80s. North Korea was a backwater, mostly forgotten about. Then of course Ronald Reagan became President, and in various ways upped the stakes in the Cold War. It's easily forgotten what a white knuckle ride the 80s were if you were following geopolitics. It felt like we were on the brink of war, and it turned out we were when the 30 year rule documents started coming out. There were two or three occasions when one false move could have tipped us over the brink. It was in that climate that North Korea first started playing with missiles, and discovered they could also be a nice little earner. Remember all those SCUD missiles Saddam Hussein had in 1991, in what I call 'Gulf War 2' (in my time there have been 3 wars simply known as 'The Gulf War,' the first was the Iran/Iraq War, then the American war of 1991, and the 2003 debacle)? They were basically North Korean rip offs of old Russian systems. So this is represented in the graph by the half a dozen tests in 1984, and another bunch in the late 80s/early 90s as the Cold War is ending. Or if you prefer, the entire post WWII settlement is unravelling. Unsettled times anyway. And all of this is while Kim Il Sung is still around.

Now, when I was discussing doing this article, one of the things the editor asked was this - Is some form of 'constructive engagement' possible with Kim and the NK regime? My first response was that it had to be, because all the other options were unthinkable. This is where some of the Australian perspective kicks in. Because if it all kicks off, and you're sitting in Scotland, you're probably going to be fine. That's the good news. Me? Not quite so sure. The speculated range for the biggest missile they've got is 6,500kms. That puts parts of Australia in range, and if they've underestimated a bit, maybe all of it. And they have underestimated before. When Obama had his handover meeting with Trump, he pointed up North Korea as the biggest thing he saw coming up in the next term. At the time the US military thought they might be able to put a nuclear warhead on an ICBM in 2-4 years. The military later came to Trump and said, "Err, sorry, make that 2-4 months." Not a good surprise to spring on someone of his temperament. So obviously that's the first, and worst, option - an actual nuclear conflict, where Kim gets some missiles off (we don't know how many he might have), maybe hits a few targets in Japan, Guam, any of the West Coast American cities, maybe even Australia. The Americans go apeshit and incinerate North Korea. There are a bit over 25 million people living there. There are 13.6 million in Tokyo, 4 million in Los Angeles, and another 7 in the San Francisco bay Area. This is not to mention over 51 million South Koreans.

The next worst option, and this is the sort of calculation military planners make before giving their advice, is if the US were to mount a successful first strike, and take out most or all of North Korea's nuclear program. The estimate is that 10 million South Koreans would be dead within 20 minutes, from the North's conventional weaponry. And the South would retaliate, and there could well be a fair bit of radioactive contamination around from the destroyed nuclear facilities. As I said, the options are terrible. So I thought some more. Trump tweeted that they had tried talking for 25 years and got nowhere. But is that really the case? Back to Chas's graph of the missile tests.

Well, no, after that little flurry of tests during the George H W Bush presidency, there's nothing for years. In 1993 Bill Clinton came to power, and in 1994 Kim Jong Il succeeded his father. And they talked. During this period the Americans did engage, and they were able to negotiate a freeze on both the nuclear and, as shown by the graph, missile programs for a significant amount of time. So bring that 25 years down to 15 years, because for the first ten they were talking, and it was working.

Now what do you think might have happened about 15 years ago that resulted in that progress being lost? Well, our old friend George W Bush declared North Korea the third member of his 'axis of evil' along with Iraq and Iran. He then proceeded to invade Iraq. Around this time the North Koreans fired up their programs again, although with a new range of missiles on the drawing board, it takes a few years to show up on the graph as tests. So bearing all this in mind, how does it look to a hypothetical rational North Korean regime? Well, they felt more secure during the Cold War, when they could play off China against the Soviet Union, got a bit worried when the world changed and started to take 'precautions,' They allowed themselves to be talked down during the era of Clinton and Kim Jong Il. Then it must have sounded to them as if they'd been put on a hit list. And Saddam fell because he didn't really have WMDs after all. So if you're going to threaten, you'd better be able to back it up.

You see what the US failed to grasp, or wilfully misunderstood, was that Saddam really didn't have much room to move. He had to give up his chemical weapons, and he had to tell the Americans he had, but he also had to imply to the Iranians that he hadn't. Without those weapons he would have lost Gulf War 1. And when they put him on trial he was charged with using them against the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs, but never with using them against Iran, even though the numbers of Iranian casualties dwarfed all the others put together. But to investigate that would have implicated the Western countries that supplied him with the technology.

Anyway, the rational North Korean regime would, we'd have to assume, like all regimes of all kinds at all times, want to survive. So they take the decision to accelerate their nuclear weapons program, in an effort to reach credible capability before the US gets round to invading them. This takes a few years. There are tests in 2006 and 2009. We also see their first two nuclear tests in those years. Then there's a pause. Just as they are ready to test some longer range missiles, Kim Jong Il dies, and Kim Jong Un comes to power in 2011. Many Korea watchers say this wasn't a smooth transition. It has certainly been a bloody one in the inner circles of the regime, so it's difficult to say how much of the subsequent test activity is just because they're ready now, and how much is Kim cementing his grip on power. He has certainly taken pains to associate himself with every test, and has been far more belligerent in his rhetoric that his father or grandfather. And he came to power very young. It's likely to be a bit of both though. For the last six years we've seen missile tests every year, more for the last four than ever before, and with progressively longer-range missiles, and there was a nuclear test in 2013, two last year and of course the recent claimed hydrogen bomb.

So obviously Kim wants to cement his rule at home, but what does he want from his international stance? Well, assuming he's not actually suicidal, we can surmise, he wants to be able to credibly deter the US from invading or otherwise attempting 'regime change.' Maybe some form of economic aid, or at least the removal of sanctions.

But I might give the last word to Bill Richardson, the former US Congressman, and Ambassador to the UN during the Clinton administration, who dealt with North Korea then. While being interviewed for Australian TV he was asked that same question - what does Kim Jong Un want? He replied, "Well, we could ask him. Nobody has really talked to the guy yet." He is strongly of the opinion that diplomacy has been neglected, and needs to be tried again. It's hard to see Trump as a peacemaker though. Since I started writing this on Friday night there have been further threats from the administration, by National Security Advisor H R McMaster (another neocon) and Nikki Haley, the current Ambassador to the UN (a slightly unhinged looking Trump appointee). So let's just hope both sides are posturing, and that the neocons will stop short of a conflict the outcome of which they cannot possibly predict, except that it won't be good.

And that they can persuade Trump of that too.

Derek Stewart MacPherson

 

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